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Kamala vs. Kayo (2003)

It won’t be a political tragedy, no matter who wins, but I can’t help seeing the district attorney’s race as the sad, final act of an Othello story involving two characters for whom I have respect and affection. The outcome was inevitable; and yet it didn’t have to come to this.

I worked closely with Kamala Harris for a year, and even more closely with Terence Tyrone Hallinan for two-and-a-half years as the San Francisco District Attorney's public information officer. I'd known "Kayo" since 1967. We used to drive down to Fort Ord together when I was covering the Presidio mutiny court martials for Liberation News Service (a syndicate for the "underground press") and Terence was representing 14 desperate young GIs who'd held a nonviolent sit-down to protest conditions at the stockade.

Back then there was a sign across Highway 1 as it went through the small city of Castroville that said "Welcome to Castroville, the artichoke capitol of the world." I sent a note to the Castroville chamber of commerce suggesting that they change their slogan to "the artichoke heart of the world." Many years later the sign was replaced, but the C-of-C stuck with "artichoke capitol." Which goes to show that giving away good advice for free only makes it ignorable.

Terence and I stayed in touch over the years. He entered politics at age 52, getting elected to the SF Board of Supervisors. He was elected DA in November 1995 and re-elected by a very narrow margin in '99, which is when he tapped me to be his press secretary. I had been working at UCSF as managing editor of Synapse, their internal weekly. Although I'd covered a few trials over the years, and had written about the drug laws in connection with the medical marijuana movement, I had to learn the workings and lingo of the criminal justice system on the job.

Terence told me who was who in the office — which lawyers were assigned to which units, who had special expertise, which ones he had hired, whose loyalty he questioned, etc. etc. He described Kamala Harris admiringly and called her "a great hire." (She had previously been a prosecutor for the Alameda County DA's office.)

No one I turned to for information at SFDA was more helpful than Kamala. She gave clear, detailed explanations, offered useful material to read, and never made me embarrassed to ask simplistic questions like, "How many people get arrested in San Francisco and what do they get charged with?"

By the way, everything I learned working for law enforcement served to confirm what I'd known as a reporter: violations of the drug laws account for about two-thirds of the crimes for which people get prosecuted, even in progressive San Francisco. First time I rode the elevator up to the jail on the fifth floor, Vernon Grigg, the SF DA's top narcotics prosecutor, said, as if giving a tour, “And here is where we keep our negroes.” The door opened and sure enough everyone in an orange jumpsuit was brown-skinned (like Vernon).

In January 2000 there was considerable media interest in a state ballot measure to be voted on in the upcoming March election — Proposition 21 — which would give prosecutors the option of trying defendants younger than 18 in Superior Court instead of the juvenile courts. (Previously such decisions had been up to the judges.) Hallinan had opposed Prop 21 — the only DA in the state to do so. The Assistant DA who had been most heavily involved in the No-on-21 campaign — speaking at rallies and drafting position papers — was Kamala Harris.

When reporters would call with questions regarding Prop 21, I would give them the option of interviewing Kamala as well as Terence, because she was knowledgeable and felt strongly about the subject. (She foresaw 38,000 more kids per year, most of them black and Latino, being tried in adult court over the year.) Plus Kamala was willing and generally available.

About a third of the Assistant DAs do not want to talk to reporters, I was coming to realize; about a third really do; and the other third will deal with the media if asked, but would not volunteer.

Enter Iago

Two weeks after I started at SFDA, Darrell Salomon became “the number two” — Hallinan’s Chief Assistant. As a young lawyer Salomon had helped Joe Alioto, then the mayor of San Francisco, sue Look Magazine for linking him to the Mafia. Recently he had helped the Fang family acquire the San Francisco Examiner from the Hearst Corp. for the bargain price of minus $66 million (seller pays buyer). Hallinan hoped that Salomon would help him introduce efficiencies to the SF DA that are common practice at successful private-sector firms.

Not long after he arrived, Salomon came into my office and instead of sitting in the chair across the desk, pulled it over so that he could sit alongside me and read what was on my computer screen. This was not a man stealing a sideways glance. I swiveled the monitor slightly to make it easier for him to read as I pondered his intent: Dominance gesture? Mafia tradition? Trying to get something on me? Whatever was on the screen was work-connected, rest assured. I was honored to be employed by the city/county of San Francisco and the tough-minded old boxer who had done so much to oppose the Drug War and give people a break here and there.

"You and I have a philosophical difference," were Salomon's first words.

"That may be," I said, "what about?"

"You're trying to make a star out of Kamala Harris."

"I can't make a star out of Kamala Harris," I said, "she already is a star."

Salomon scowled. He said he didn't want me directing media inquiries about Prop 21 to Kamala because she was planning to run against Hallinan in November 2003. "She has an agenda," Salomon said and repeated, ominously, "She has an agenda…"

I pointed out that it was February 2000, an exhausting campaign had just ended, for a couple of years everybody in the office ought to concentrate on prosecuting crimes without an eye towards an election almost four years away.

I imagined that in two years Terence and Kamala could sit down and discuss which of them should run in 2003, based on whether he had the energy and desire, whether she had the experience and perspective… I was like Rip Van Winkle, having returned to the world of electoral politics after a 36-year absence. I overestimated the importance of The Cause and underestimated the importance of The Ego.

Darrell Saloman told me I didn't understand politics. "It's never too early to think in terms of the next campaign," he said. Also, I could learn a lot if I would report to him instead of to Terence. "You could be my eyes and ears in the office…" I ignored his offer and defended my decision to put reporters in touch with Kamala, who was spending her week-ends working on the No-on-21 campaign as a volunteer. Also, "The camera loves her" (a quote from Dan Springer, then reporting for KTVU).

And she thoroughly understood all the ramifications of the new law. And didn't it reflect well on Terence Hallinan that his brilliant young African-American protege was looking out for her younger brothers? And maybe, if they caught a high-ranking sister on TV, they'd pay attention.

Darrell sneered at my naivete. I kept going: "And there's the basic Egalitarian principle that those who do the work should get acknowledgment. And it's the line deputies that the reporters want access to, because they know the details of the case…

"She's Willie Brown's protege!" Darrell blurted, his face gone purple. "He's f---ing her!"

I said, "How do you know? Couldn't an old gent want to be seen with a beautiful young woman on his arm, leaving the opera?"

Maybe Darrell thought my Candide act was a put-on. He jumped up, shook his finger at me, and said "You direct those reporters' calls to Terence Hallinan. That's what he told me to tell you."

Later that day, I asked Kamala if she was planning to run in 2003. She said "Not if Terence decides to run for a third term." She said it would be "unprofessional." I told Terence, who did not believe her.

I sent Terence a note about my encounter with his Number Two. "… I figure Kamala started speaking out on Prop 21 not because she 'has an agenda' but because she has mercy. And if her agenda is to oppose the police state, what's wrong with that? Darrell said there's one good thing about her, not you, speaking out against Prop 21: 'it lowers the risk of alienating the governor, and we may need the governor for money.'

"Emotionally and intellectually I know you're very pro-Kamala, and I think it's reciprocal. That's why I'm writing to suggest that you rise above seeing her as a rival…"

I soon learned that Terence wanted to handle not only the Prop 21 calls, but all the calls coming in from reporters. He said he felt responsible for the policies and actions being carried out in his name. "I'm the elected official," he reminded me. "I'm the D.A. It's my office. Except for my spokesman, I don't want anybody going to the media."

But working reporters generally want access to the assistant DAs, because it's they — not the boss — who prosecute the cases and are most familiar with the facts. By giving the Assistant DAs leeway to talk, Terence would not only win the reporters' thanks, he might even catch an occasional break. "Think of it from Jaxon's point of view," I argued, invoking the Chronicle's indefatigable and highly cynical man at the Hall of Justice, Jaxon Vanderbeken. "Let's say Braden [Prosecutor Braden Woods, then in Homicide] gets an unfavorable verdict but he isn't allowed to discuss it, so Jaxon has to get you or me to explain what went wrong. He'll see the explanation as the official party line and all he'll want to do is poke holes in it. But if he talks to Braden, who just spent six days in court and put his heart into the prosecution and has an idea about why he didn't get a guilty verdict, Jaxon might quote his comments and not feel impelled to refute him."

In my two and a half years at the DA's office I generally gave the reporters access to the Assistant DAs. Terence was forbearing. He knew I was operating in what I took to be his interests, but he disagreed with my approach, and he had every right to, and he was the boss.

If Kamala Harris was hatching any disloyal plans, I never got wind of them. Within the office she was a terrific mentor. I remember her instructing Assistant DA Maria Bee to be much more forceful in prosecuting Douglas Chin, dubbed "Rebar Man" by the media. This was a case that the Hallinan-haters had been publicizing. Ken Garcia of the Chronicle characterized it as an "overzealous attempt by Hallinan's office to prosecute a Mission District man who went on a crusade to combat prostitution in his neighborhood. Douglas Chin, a.k.a. Rebar Man, a mild-mannered electrical engineer, did a stupid thing for a fine cause. He dropped candy-bar-size metal chunks from a rooftop on the cars of johns prowling for hookers around 19th and Capp streets, where he lives…"

Kamala instructed Maria, in fierce tones: "Show some outrage towards this creep! Tell the jury who he really is — a 46-year-old loner who lives with his mother. At night he sits for hours in the front room — in the dark, in the front room of his mother's house — looking out at the hookers. A creep! When he's sufficiently aroused, he puts on gloves and a ski mask and climbs a fire escape onto the roof of the church next door. From the roof of the church he hurls down 9-inch chunks of steel, which he has carefully hacksawed - this man is a creep! - at cars that he assumes are driven by pimps and johns. And he admits that he's done this ritual hundreds of times! It's a miracle nobody's gotten killed!"

Maria gulped and nodded and said, "Yes, thank you, yes, I will…"

Kamala's a hell of a teacher, I thought, and certainly not somebody who wants to see the boss look bad. Far from it. But I couldn't convince Terence, and in due course he gave her a de facto demotion. She left to work for Louise Renne at the City Attorney's office, and as if Fate (or Terence) was out to demonstrate how replaceable workers are in our system, another beautiful, brilliant, brown-skinned attorney named K(ia) Harris was hired by SFDA soon thereafter, and for a while occupied the very office that had been Kamala's.

Darrell Salomon resigned after less than a year at SFDA, blaming Kamala Harris for stirring up resentment towards him. But Terence, on his own, decided to test Kamala's loyalty. He confided in her some info that, were it to appear in the press, he assumed, could only have come from her. And sure enough, the info did appear before long in a story by Dennis Opatmy of the Recorder. He summoned me into his office and was waving the legal tabloid in triumph: "You were wrong to keep sticking up for her! See…"

I soon learned that Terence had divulged the supposedly secret info to a loose-lipped third party. It was she, not Kamala, who gave the Recorder the pseudo-incriminating item.

PS 2019. Kamala ran for District Attorney in 2003 — pursuing her agenda, indeed — and defeated Terence by a 56-44 margin in the Democratic primary. I had left SFDA, moved to the East Bay and was producing a publication for a pro-cannabis doctors' group. I didn't think Terence should have run for a third term, and he didn't ask me what I thought.

In this file photo from Dec. 4, 2003, then-candidates Harris and Hallinan face off in a debate.
Photo: Michael Macor/The Chronicle

He'll be remembered as the only law enforcement official in California who supported the medical marijuana initiative in '96.

The last piece I wrote about Kayo was in 2012. The accompanying photo of a racist cop's t-shirt reminded me of the fierce animosity that he — and Kamala — had to contend with, the so-called "culture" of SFPD.

Friends urged him to take part in the Presidio "mutineers'" reunion last October, but he wasn't feeling up to it.

One Comment

  1. Fred Gardner February 14, 2019

    Corrected PS 2019.

    Kamala ran for District Attorney in 2003 at age 39 —pursuing her agenda, indeed— against Terence, then 66, and a third-time candidate named Bill Fazio, a homicide prosecutor who was among those  fired by Kayo when he first took office. Fazio finished third, leading to a run-off between Kamala and Terence. She prevailed by a 56-44 margin. I sat the whole thing out. I had left SFDA, moved to the East Bay and was producing a publication for a pro-cannabis doctors’ group. I didn’t think Terence had the stamina or the sharpness to run the office, and he didn’t ask me what I thought.

    The Intercept has just published a piece by Lee Fang on the 2003 contest between Kamala and Kayo, headlined “IN HER FIRST RACE, KAMALA HARRIS CAMPAIGNED AS TOUGH ON CRIME — AND UNSEATED THE COUNTRY’S MOST PROGRESSIVE PROSECUTOR.”

    And I just posted at the last piece I wrote about Terence. It reminded of the fierce  animosity that he  —and Kamala—had to contend with, the so-called “culture” of SFPD.

    Friends urged Terence  to take part in the Presidio “mutineers'” reunion last October, but he wasn’t feeling up to it.

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